Updated, 3:30 p.m.: Additional information.
NORWALK, Conn. — It might be necessary to reprioritize Norwalk’s school construction projects, Board of Education members said Monday.
With the new Ely school delayed for a year – the second time – the Board’s Facility Committee stuck with their timing for the order of South Norwalk changes but suggested that maybe a new Cranbury school might become a priority, given the uncertainty of state approvals. Board of Education Chairman Mike Barbis slammed what he called “obstructionism” at the state level by politicians he declined to name.
“The unfortunate development here is what happens to our students in South Norwalk, who are getting bussed all over the city,” Barbis said. “…Unfortunately, some games have been played by certain politicians have, have created this problem. We would not be here if not for those games.”
“I personally believe if we had strong support in Hartford, people pushing for those projects, we wouldn’t be in this situation right now,” Bruce Kimmel said. “I don’t think we had that strong support. And thus, the paperwork sat there and nothing got done. And here we are today.”
NancyOnNorwalk sent an email to every member of the state delegation asking for a response to the comments. No one replied.
The plan to build a new school behind the Nathaniel Ely site, next to Roodner Court, requires the use of Springwood Park land. This is allowed by the state if comparably valued land is dedicated to open space use, but it was announced last week that the required approval from the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) will not be issued by the June 30 deadline for Norwalk to submit an application for state funding on the school construction.
Norwalk must have site control to be able to submit the application. It was also necessary to acquire property through the eminent domain process and as soon as that was complete, Norwalk submitted the DEEP application, in November, Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton said.
Then DEEP asked for a historical review of the site to make sure there was no historic value, in December, Building and Facilities Manager Alan Lo said, explaining that this involved taking ground samples, which couldn’t be done until April because the ground was frozen.
Plus, the state doesn’t do many land swap applications, he said. The one staff person who handles it has retired and hasn’t been replaced yet.
Beyond DEEP, the National Parks Service has to weigh in.
“In recent years, the office actually is in Atlanta. And Connecticut does not have an ongoing relationship to staff member there because they change quite a bit,” Lo said. “… In fact, the person that retired from Connecticut had no idea what to do.”
Barbis began work on the new schools project in 2014, when the Board approved funding for a facilities feasibility study, which produced a lengthy report in early 2016. The plan involves what Barbis called “dominoes” on Monday: building new schools and then moving existing school populations into them, so the existing school buildings can be renovated as new.
Construction on Ponus Ridge Middle School is underway, with plans of turning it into a new K-8 STEAM school. Before the STEAM school opens, the Jefferson Elementary students would move in so their long-neglected and overpopulated building could be revamped.
The South Norwalk school, once constructed, would be the new home of Columbus Magnet program, and then the Concord Street school renovated (or replaced) to create an International Baccalaureate School. “Maybe we’re going to have to look at alternative options, and work on schools where we can do so unimpeded, so to speak. And without some of the obstructionism that has come to us,” Barbis said Monday.
Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski said he had to ask: would the Board prefer to move the Columbus school community into Ponus ahead of the Jefferson kids, so the school could be renovated?
“We’re not recommending it,” he said, explaining that the State and City had asked the question but it wouldn’t be good for Columbus educationally, and unfair to Jefferson.
Board members agreed to stay the course, as far as that goes.
The Common Council is set to vote Tuesday on the BoE’s request to rejigger its capital budget plans, including taking money that had been slated for Cranbury Elementary School renovations and assigning them to Jefferson.
Cranbury parents have collected 247 names on a petition demanding a new school.
“This remedy is long overdue, with planned and budgeted renovations having been promised and not executed multiple times over the years,” the petition written by David Young states. “It is a critical failure for our children and residents of the Cranbury area who provide a major portion of city revenues. It is unacceptable for the City of Norwalk to provide a sixty year-old obsolete school building that has been repaired, but with little upgrades to its electrical and HVAC infrastructure, and possesses outdated entry points, windows, solid surfaces, flooring, and facility amenities, as well as a failing outdoor overhang.”
“The Cranbury population has been, I think, quite dignified and how they handle the setback year after year after year. And they’ve made a strong case. And we’ve discussed it that the a new school on that site may be the preferred route, maybe that they would be willing to wait,” Kimmel said Monday. “… Considering everything that’s happened, considering the four years of pushback on some of the projects that are not moving forward, and even though it’s early June, I think we should seriously consider reprioritizing what we’re doing.”
The facilities plan began with a desire to eliminate the 10 portable classrooms at Jefferson and create 900 new seats for the school district, he said.
“We’re moving in that direction,” Kimmel said. “I think we can also I think it would be wise for us put the two South Norwalk schools on hold, for the time being until we get everything in order. … under no circumstances what I support any of delays on Jefferson, that has been going on for too many years. And to be frank, it’s kind of an embarrassment to the city.”
“I’m taking a real hard look at what the possibilities are with the Cranbury school and see what we can do,” Kimmel said. “And I also think in the back of our minds, we should begin to plan. We’re not sure about the land swap. We’re not sure about all of these approvals. We’re not sure what’s going to happen. So we have to start thinking a little bit out of the box that how to deal with the situation itself normal, we may have to go into totally different directions.”
If it’s true that the school is held up because of one retiree, then “shame on the state,” Kimmel said. “…I just can’t buy that. It doesn’t make sense. We are a city of 90,000 people, that’s not how anything works in Hartford.”
Bryan Meek also lauded the idea of a new Cranbury School, suggested that the new boiler is close to the side of the existing school and could probably be worked into the new one, so that $1.5 million of work doesn’t go to waste.
“In an organization with 60,000 people that can’t get its act together and fill one replacement. I’m not buying that. It was a problem created by Norwalk,” Meek said.
“I personally find it quite alarming when someone is retires and no one else replaces that person,” Heidi Keyes said. “So whether it’s a temporary person coming in, or if that paperwork is just left on that person’s desk for a long time, it’s disturbing.”
She agreed on Cranbury. “I think they’ve waited quite a long time.”
“I think what I would need to have a discussion with the committee and the full board. Regarding before I was on board entirely with putting inserting something so large into a capital plan that has been negotiated across the city to great lengths, a couple of years ago,” Barbara Meyer-Mitchell said.
On Tuesday, she clarified her statement, saying that before she could vote on a new school for Cranbury she’d need to understand all the needs across the district.
“My kids went through Cranbury. So I have experienced firsthand the disappointment of getting bumped on the list,” she said Monday, before listing three schools that need new cafeterias and the age of Tracey Elementary, 20 years older than Cranbury.
“I think it’s going to be necessary that your retreat this summer, to take a look at the big picture,” Adamowski said.
“I think we have to assume these plans are going to happen,” Adamowski asserted. “South Norwalk is where we have lots of children, and it’s we’re enrollment is growing. We need schools and we need good schools in South Norwalk. I think this is a question of timing, as opposed to substituting something for something else, you may you may substitute the order of things.”
“I appreciate your optimism, drive and energy, Stephen, I’m just looking at the reality of you know, there’s reasons why this has been a problem for 30 to 40 years now,” Meek replied. “Forty years, they have not had a school down there. And there, there are reasons and they’re very well entrenched. I wish I had the confidence that we could get it done. But there’s just a lot of forces against having a nice new school down there.”
“The people who actually live Roodner Court are very excited about this,” Meyer-Mitchell said. “And I know there’s a lot of extra spin on top of that, but we’ll just have to be patient, and we can deliver that for our families.”
Kimmel said that in the years he was on the Common Council, with issues like the Al Madany mosque in West Norwalk and charter revision, there had never been so much pushback as the South Norwalk school generated.
“It was really strong. And we will also aware on the other hand, that all the surveys, all the discussions, all of our experiences indicated that the school is not only needed, but the community wants it,” Kimmel said.
“What I’m planning to do is to respond to both the city and state that we intend to stay the course in terms of the Ponus/Jefferson schedule, and that we will accept another year delay
relative to the Ely approval,” Adamowski said, confirming the Committee’s decision at the end of the discussion.
Barbis declined afterwards to identify the “obstructionist” politicians, other than to eliminate State Rep. Travis Simms (D-140) from the list. There was an action taken before Simms, who opposed the Ely school when he was on the Common Council, was elected, he said.
“We know who it is,” Barbis said. “I don’t need to be the one to put it on the record but we know who was in Hartford and we know who went to DAS (Department of Administrative Services) and complained about stuff. We know how this all went down.”